I laughed when I learned I shared a name with the former president of Zimbabwe … but that night I dreamed of killing Robert Gabriel Mugabe.

How many have envisioned the death of Robert Mugabe, and for how long?

I can remember when it started for me. In my mid-teens in the mid-2000s, I learned that we shared a name, Gabriel. I laughed, but inside of me something snapped. That night I dreamed of killing Robert Gabriel Mugabe.

For a couple of years after that I underwent a unique, at least unique to me, experience – the plotting of someone else’s murder. I didn’t get very far, not far at all; maybe plotting isn’t even the word. Contemplating. Various contemplations on the theme of a suicide-mission, with no hope of escape, became a kind of pastime in dark moments. The point, I realized, of the contemplation was to recognise that the dictator’s removal was worth dying for. At least, that is how I felt for a time.

What changed? Well, I was at boarding school and the thing was on my mind, so I asked a mate, from Zim, what he thought about it.

‘You see, I wanted to kill Mugabe to set Zimbabweans free, isn’t that a great idea?’

‘You’re an idiot.’

That’s what my mate X told me, catching my eye straight so that I would know he wasn’t joking. Not only were my chances of success next to nothing, but my success would backfire into failure without doubt. Even if I managed to keep my identity secret, the country’s elite would be gripped by profound paranoia, ensuring both manipulated succession and purges for years.

From the first moment, the usual suspects would be accused of regime change, subverting African sovereignty and war crimes. ‘They’ll blame the CIA, MI6, old apartheid spies and – think about it, you little shit – they’ll probably be right.’

X’s point was that without assistance from some sophisticated, well-financed foreign network there would be no way for me to get near Mugabe in the first place.

‘If they do figure out who did it, a white South African snothead, it’ll only make things worse. They’ll finally have a common enemy again. And in the most likely case where you try to assassinate him but fail and get caught, it will be even worse. I cannot believe I’m saying this because I thought we hit rock bottom. But wow. You, Gabriel, have actually taught me something today. Zimbabwe could actually get worse than it already is. All it takes is you, going in with your bloody fantasies of self-glory.’

As boarding house punishment, we used to take 5am cold showers in winter; that conversation had much the same effect. It stopped me cold. And woke me up.

For all that, my mind is weak and I dream on still. Since February 16, 2018, one of my persistent dreams has been to force South Africa’s power-elite to converse with ordinary Zimbabweans.

Take James, for example, born in Plumtree in the late 1950s, the son of a polygamist.

‘Life was too primitive at that time,’ he told me. ‘If a car passed I would go to smell the floor, to smell the petrol.’

After he finished grade 7, James began to work as a gardener. As soon as he could he dashed for apartheid South Africa – Johannesburg – to join his brother, working in a factory. He laughs at how rich but primitive SA was.

‘In Rhodesia, there was TV’, but not in SA, because the paranoid Nats feared free-flowing ideas. Some things have changed. ‘Back then, the whites were ugly. Racist.

Now people have come together.’ Some things stayed the same.

James had a legitimate job and would go home annually, to ‘re-enter’, according to the rules. But officials at Market Street would only issue his documents without ‘accidental’ loss or delay if he paid a bribe. Eventually the extortion was beyond bearing, so he forwent his documents, lost his job and went home to stay. Then the true horror of his compatriots’ lives dawned, and James joined the struggle.

He fought in the bush war, but demurs on talk of killing. Rather, he talks of seeing his fellows get killed. He ruminates on the word perish. ‘You get that determination to say, we must pick up where he left off. That determination encourages everyone to fight on.’

James fought until Lancaster House peace agreement and then he settled down, too. He married, had three children, and continued to serve in the Defence Force of Zimbabwe until 1998. He studied on weekends for years, eventually getting a school completion certificate with subjects including science and history. James holds his gardener’s-soldier’s hands against his puffing chest: ‘And I learned to understand myself better, to think in new ways.’

By retirement, James had his spirit, his mind, his family and more than 25 cattle.

‘I have a plot of land and my farm was growing. I would hire many people to help me from time to time to remove the weeds, to plant and to harvest. I had a bakkie to transport my goods to market and to hire out. And there was a stable income from the pension to supplement what I was making in business. My kids were all at school. I felt happy to sit down with my family.’

The rest, as they say, is history. By the mid-2000s James was back in Johannesburg with nothing to his name except three packets of cigarettes, three bags of sweets, and the rags on his back. He slept in parking lots and sold his wares in Victory Park, whatever profit he made at the start he made by losing weight. He had to, for beyond replenishing stock at the end of every month he would send back R300 worth of calories to his family in Zim.

While running his ‘table’, a bit of cardboard on the grass, James flogged his gardening skills at dog walkers and strollers and fellow peddlers until he had a few jobs at rates most South Africans would refuse and all unions would forbid. Once he had a few jobs like this going concurrently, he joined a burial society and got a tiny (leaking) roof over his head. Now James is the burial society’s elected chair, overseeing a vast operation whose chief responsibility is taking dead bodies home to be buried with provisions to hold the mourners up.

James cannot straighten his back anymore, the result of too many years raking, mowing, crouching – and stooping over books. But he can still open his shoulders with honour as he does when I ask him why he is trusted. ‘I take care,’ he says, ‘I do my duty.’

Yes, if I had a magic wand I would place the ad hoc parliamentary committee on land reform in front of James. I then would ask them to repeat the most common line of questioning they served up during ‘public consultation’ in Parliament last year.

Why do you (at the IRR, for example) warn that things could get worse? We are black, we know suffering that you can never know that is ongoing now, here in SA. It cannot be worse than this, now.

This line of reasoning is so powerful that neither the ad hoc committee nor the president’s ‘special advisory experts’ have bothered offering a single cost-benefit analysis. They simply do not believe things could get worse than they are in SA. James would tell them we can, yes we can, we can get so much worse. Twenty-five cattle, an old bakkie and a little rural home with a family to love and time to think was abundance to James. Now the question that burns him is whether he will work himself to death to keep his family food secure back home, hundreds of kilometres away.

Could things be worse than they are now? ‘Yes, Gab. The thoughtless, reckless youth, the Malemas, the fire-makers, they could take over with their dreams of revenge against this and that and whites especially. They are already chasing the money’ – he snaps his hand out of the window – ‘and it flies so far. If you take the next shortcut like we did, where can I go?’

When he posed this question, James suddenly looked like a man in his sixties with nowhere to go.

Maybe home. Zimbabwe is wooing investors and moving to compensate those who were dispossessed in the 2000s. Whatever compliments are paid to Mugabe the ‘liberator’ in the meanwhile are equally lost in time. The great anti-colonist did more damage to himself in the end than any youth trying to ‘set Zimbabwe free’ ever could. For in death, he discredited himself, totally and forever, as being not even true to his own ideology. That son of the soil died on foreign land.

Does that impress our land reform ‘experts’ very much? Seems not. What about our president and his sweet condolences? Ramaphosa’s failure to mention a single life out of the millions that Mugabe ruined (when he did not outright order their killing) is deafening.

My Zimbabwean colleague Tawanda Makombo says that he sees all sorts trying to ‘sugarcoat’ Mugabe’s character now that he’s dead.

‘But face it,’ he says, ‘the man has blood on his hands. Let God deal with him. He walked in the path of Hitler and Mussolini. It is what it is.’

Gabriel Crouse is a writer and analyst at the Institute of Race Relations.

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Gabriel Crouse is Executive Director of IRR Legal, and is a Fellow at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR). He holds a degree in Philosophy from Princeton University.